With recent figures showing that just 4% of NHS staff have a disability, one community nurse is urging healthcare leaders to make adjustments in the workplace so that disabled people can feel empowered to pursue a career in nursing.
Chloe Hammond is thought to be the only nurse in the UK who uses a wheelchair and has an assistance dog.
“I did a nursing degree because I wanted to be a nurse and wanted to help people, so I see myself now as doing exactly that”
Against several odds, she has battled with university leaders and NHS managers at every stage of her career to make her dream of becoming a nurse a reality.
Ms Hammond told Nursing Times that she wanted to show the value that disabled staff can bring to health and care services across the UK, and that there is a place for them within the nursing profession if they want.
When she was a teenager, Ms Hammond was diagnosed with several conditions which caused her to become disabled, including Behcet’s disease, hypermobile Ehlers Danlos, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
It was her experience spending much time in hospital which inspired her to become a nurse.
However, from the start, Ms Hammond faced pushback from those around her.
She recalled university open days where she had been told more than once that a career in nursing was “not going to be for you”.
“I knew I wanted to be a nurse, and it was going to happen somehow,” she said.
Ms Hammond qualified from the University of West London as an adult nurse in 2013 and then worked on a children’s intensive care unit for five years.
In 2018, when some of her conditions worsened, Ms Hammond began using a wheelchair at work to help her manage her disabilities.
She said it was from this point that NHS managers actively discouraged her to continue working in patient-facing settings and she described being “forcefully moved” into an audit role.
“I’d been told that I couldn’t be a nurse anymore,” she said.
“The managers in the NHS made me feel awkward about wanting to be a nurse and wanting to work in the NHS.
“I didn’t really have a choice in it – I was moved and that was that.”
The most recent Workforce Disability Equality Standard report from NHS England found that 4.2% of staff working across the NHS are disabled.
The report highlighted that disabled staff faced many barriers at work, with 29.9% saying they felt pressured by managers to come to work despite not feeling well enough to attend.
In addition, it found that disabled staff were roughly twice as likely to enter formal capability processes or hearings on the grounds of poor performance.
Despite all her training and experience working in patient-facing settings, Ms Hammond said she had been convinced that she could not continue nursing with a disability and, as such, applied for a job as an activity coordinator in a care home.
She added: “To me that was the end of it, I thought I couldn’t be a nurse anymore.
“Yes [an activity coordinator] is way below what I am trained to do but it was a job that I felt like I would be able to.
“Whereas actually I could still be a nurse, I just needed some more adaptations.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Hammond had to stop working and spent time shielding due to being immunosuppressed.
As the world began to open up again, she received a phone call from Radis Community Care, her current employer, about a vacancy that had opened up as a complex care community nurse lead.
Eager to get back into the profession, Ms Hammond accepted the job.
She explained that “nothing is too much trouble” for her employer and it had continually made adjustments so that she is able to continue in her patient-facing role.
Ms Hammond cares for people who are being discharged from hospital back into the community, supporting them with things like using a breathing tube, feeding tube or catheter at home.
“I train carers with how to look after the person, so they get their life back,” she noted.
Over the last two years, Ms Hammond has not been nursing alone, but has had support from her assistance dog, Ocho.
With the support of the Dog A.I.D charity, Ms Hammond trained Ocho the labrador herself so that he could become a full-time assistance dog.
She explained that Ocho supports her at work by bringing her items she may need to use, or by picking things up that she has dropped.
“In terms of working, he’s more helpful so I can reduce my movements,” she added.
Ocho often accompanies Ms Hammond out on community visits, which she said patients “love”.
“I always tell them first that I have this assistance dog [and explain] what he looks like, and [ask] if it’s OK if he comes with me,” she explained.
More recently, Ocho has completed a separate training course to become a therapy dog, which Ms Hammond said could provide emotional support for patients going through a difficult time.
She said: “I hope he will sit on the bed and just be petted and be a distraction while there’s difficult conversations happening.”
Ms Hammond said she hoped that being a nurse in a wheelchair with an assistance dog might inspire patients that things will get better.
“I imagine [patients] are expecting an able-bodied nurse to turn up and tell them ‘get on with life, it’s not that bad’,” she said.
“But then they meet me and Ocho and I say ‘sure it’s going to be difficult, there’s going to be a lot of things that are difficult, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it’.”
It is not just patients who Ms Hammond hopes to inspire, but other disabled people who want to pursue a career in nursing.
“To dismiss people because of a disability is such a waste of training”
“There are so many people who maybe their mobility isn’t so great, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be a nurse – there’s so many roles they can do,” Ms Hammond argued.
Through social media, Ms Hammond has made contact with several people who have had to quit nursing because of their disability.
She said: “I’ve met quite a few wheelchair users and so many people have the same experience in the NHS.
“It’s so sad because when you think about how much the NHS is struggling and needing to recruit and retain nurses, to dismiss people because of a disability is such a waste of training.”
Ms Hammond urged any disabled people curious about nursing to “go for it”.
She said: “You know what you can and can’t do, it’s not up to anyone else to tell you.
“It’s not up to a university or an employer or anyone to say you can’t do that.”
To healthcare leaders and employers across the UK, Ms Hammond urged them to “give everyone a chance”.
She said: “If somebody turned up wearing glasses, or with a hearing aid, you wouldn’t think twice – you’d employ them if they were right for the job.
“If somebody turns up in a wheelchair it’s no different.
“A wheelchair is just a mobility aid and my dog is a mobility aid.”
Ms Hammond and Ocho’s popularity has grown online.
They have amassed more than 15,000 followers on Instagram and Ms Hammond featured on This Morning as its ‘extraordinary woman of the day’ on International Women’s Day.
Despite all this, Ms Hammond said: “To me, I’m just doing the job that I trained to do.
“I did a nursing degree because I wanted to be a nurse and wanted to help people, so I see myself now as doing exactly that.”